Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Grace and legacy...

If today's New Hampshire primary is as bad for Sen. Hillary Clinton as it looks like it could be - say a double digit loss to Sen. Obama - the next weeks/months will be highly instructive as to the genuine nature of the Clinton's.

I am not embarrassed to admit that I am one of the three people left (it sometimes seems) that believes the Clinton's are genuine. That they strive and live for public service. And they are more interested in the future of America than in amassing power. Maybe I am naive, maybe I am simple. But, in some ways, I have to believe that they are sincere.

I grew up in small towns in Arkansas. I came from no connections and no family name. My parents were teachers and I grew up middle-class/lower middle-class. The story of Bill Clinton is the great America dream. A boy with no name, no connections, no money, from no where of import - works hard, studies hard, and makes it. I have always seen a tiny bit of myself in that story. In the summer of 1991, I attended Boy State in Arkansas - and that weekend, while Gov. Bill Clinton was campaigning in New Hampshire and other places in anticipation for the 1992 election, I must have seen the Boy State picture of the young-Bill Clinton shaking the hand of President John Kennedy 50 times. I also grew up watching Hillary Clinton work on important causes long before there were any cameras or press people following her around. She didn't do it to seek power or fame, she worked because children and other folks needed help.

I always felt a connection to that story. I never had much, but (at least, I would say so myself) I worked hard, had a great first-career, began a wonderful family, went back to law school and had some success, and am basically living my life's dreams right now. In my own way, I made it. Just like the Clinton's made it. And yes, there are flaws and failings. For all of the mythology and inspiration of the story of Bill Clinton - which I am in awe of, there is also the character flaws and poor personal judgment - which I also know is true. And yet...

I have never bought in to the right-wing created charicature of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Manipulative, cold, calculating, out for nothing save more power. It's such an easy story, and the media has beaten us over the head with it for so many years now that - because perception is reality - it is accepted as true. But I've never bought it. They are vilified because they win. They are vilified because they exposed the falsity of conservative politics - that you don't have to use fear to win, that you can balance budgets while increasing social responsibility, that you can balance free markets and reasonable regulation - the list goes on and on. They were successful, so the right-wing had to paint them as monsters in order to offset the success. They are power hungry. They are manipulative. They mercilessly pounce on anyone who dares oppose them - and leave a trail of broken careers, hopes and dreams in their wake. But that is not what I see.

What I see are a supremely politically gifted, exceptionally intelligent, and improbably resilient couple. I see two people who - instead of pursuing lucrative careers in the private sector with those prestigious degrees they gained - choose to devote their lives to public service. State government service, children's defense, federal government service - the list goes on. They have lived lives of public service. I can't imagine that this was the easiest way of getting ahead - because my supposition is not that their primary motivation was to get ahead - rather to serve America.

But maybe I'm just naive.

I think that we'll find out for sure over the next month or so.

If indeed Obama wins NH today by double digits, I think he is without doubt in the driver's seat to be the Democratic nominee this year. How will the Clinton campaign respond? Although this may be an over-simplification, there are basically two options:

1. She can close this campaign with grace, work to unify the party, and both Hillary and Bill can take comfort and encouragement in the fact that Obama really is the continuation of the Clinton legacy. He is the new generation taking the torch from the last - as JFK spoke of so many years ago. Although for me, it seems too soon for such a generational shift in leadership, I was astounded to hear Jonathan Alter last night on the Charlie Rose Show mention that it has been 16 years since Clinton won in 1992, and it was 15 years between the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945 and the election of John Kennedy in 1960.

Obama is, in many ways, the political descendant of the Clinton's. Unity, hope, fresh perspective. An understanding that ideological division is not what makes America great, but rather pragmatic ideas that work. That's what the Clinton's were in the 90s - a shift away from cold, trickle-down theory toward tangible, pragmatic action. Bill Clinton won because he was able to "re-find" those "Reagan Democrats," he appealed to Democrats, Independents, and moderate Republicans. That is Obama today. His new vision for America embraces progressives but reaches out to and welcomes those independents and Republicans who really are looking for a third-way. He is now the torch-bearer.

But that has to be very hard for Sen. Clinton (and the former President) to accept - because I'm sure they still believe they have so much service yet to give to America. But, if Obama does win big today, it likely means the Clinton era is ending, and a new generation begins. If Hillary accepts this gracefully, and pours herself into completing a positive campaign, unifying the party, I think it will do wonders to cement the legacy of public service that defines Bill and Hillary Clinton. Yes, she needs to continue in the campaign - if Obama stumbles, she needs to be the alternative (not John Edwards). But she needs to continue with grace, dignity, and with party-unity being the higher calling. She can go back to her work in the Senate with her legacy intact, if not strengthened.


2. She can prove the right-wing critics right. She can go desperately negative. She can fight and scratch and claw her way back into contention on Feb. 5. This might actually "work" in the sense of winning her the nomination. She might be able to sling enough mud to pull him back to the field and make him beatable. But it will lose the general election - so many Americans are energized and uplifted by Obama, that they would react strongly negatively to her. And, maybe more importantly, it will crystallize the legacy of Bill and Hillary as exactly what they are characterized as - power-hungry, manipulative, and with their own personal glory above that of their party and country.

Maybe none of this will apply. Maybe she'll surprise tonight and lose by 5 or so...be legitimately right back in it, and run her campaign on to victory. But if she is well-beaten tonight - I think we will really learn a lot about the true nature of the Clinton's.

Maybe I'm naive.

I really, really hope not.

UPDATE: Here is Alter's piece in Newsweek that he referenced last night on Charlie Rose: How Tomorrow Became Yesterday.

The 16 years since the Clintons grabbed control of the Democratic Party is the same amount of time that elapsed between the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945 and John F. Kennedy's Inauguration in 1961. It's a longer period than many of us would care to admit. Kennedy operated "in the shadow of FDR," as the historian William E. Leuchtenberg put it, and he updated the New Deal to the New Frontier. But Kennedy's main argument was that "the torch has been passed to a new generation." So it is today, with the aging baby-boom generation—symbolized by the Clintons—under pressure to move aside.

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